Photo: Andrew Seaman. Creative Commons.

Here’s a trick question: what’s the biggest influence on a child’s readiness for school? Preschool education, replies a confident chorus of policy wonks. But maybe you got the answer right: it’s parenting. Research evidence has long established that reading with young children, taking them to the library and having books at home are more important predictors of school readiness than preschool education.

Policy makers and practitioners sometimes forget this. Perhaps they despair of changing parenting in a fundamental way. Some imagine that stressed, often poorly educated parents are stuck in a rut, making the same old mistakes as their own mom and dad.

Well, the evidence suggests that these parents have been underestimated. While child development policy in the United States has largely focused on extending access to preschool, low-income parents have been busy transforming their practice. That’s making a real difference to their children’s learning skills and prospects. Intriguingly, they’ve made these strides at a time when income inequality has grown worse.

Changes in parenting styles

Our research shows that parents with lower incomes now act much more like middle- and high-income families in supporting their children’s learning. Large gaps remain – that’s still a major problem for equalizing opportunities during childhood. But lower-income parents’ practices are converging with those of their higher-income peers, and that’s paying off by narrowing gaps in school readiness.

We compared parenting for young children in 1998 and 2010, using very reliable data collected by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. In each of these years, the Center assessed children in about 1,000 public and private kindergartens across the US, measuring students’ reading and math skills. The assessors also asked parents about children’s experiences before entering school.

Narrowed gap in school readiness

We were surprised by the picture that emerged. During those years, the school readiness gap narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading for children from low-income families, compared with their high-income contemporaries. School readiness differences between racial groups also narrowed, by about 15 per cent for both the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps.

Why did school readiness gaps grow narrower? Improved access to preschool among low-income children was, at best, only part of the answer. Although more poor children attend preschool today than in the 1990s, enrollment rates actually fell after the 2008 Great Recession, probably because of rising parental unemployment. Our research shows a fairly close alignment between preschool enrollment rates and greater school readiness, going back to the 1980s, so our finding of increased school readiness in 2010 contrasted with this dip in enrollment and with research showing that poorer children continue to experience preschools of inferior quality.

But we found some unexpected and important changes in parenting behaviors. For example, back in 1998, in almost all (92 percent) of high-income families, parents read a book to their child three or more times a week. The figures were 82 percent for middle-income families and just 66 percent for the lowest-income families. However, by 2010, the figure had risen to 75 percent for the lowest-income families and to 87 percent for middle-income families. The rate was unchanged among the wealthiest.

We found a similar pattern of change for library visits. The share of children from low-income families who had gone to the library in the past month had risen from 41 to 54 percent; for middle-income children, the figure had increased from 54 to 59 per cent. But there had been no increase for higher-income children from the 63 percent recorded in 1998. If such rates of change continue, we could see the gaps for children from low-income families narrow substantially. We found a similar convergence among income brackets in the availability at home of books, computers, internet access and computer games focused on reading and math skills.

Taken together, our findings suggest lower-income families’ parenting styles are catching up in a way that’s real and meaningful. Children are getting more of what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls “‘Goodnight Moon’ time”. Interestingly, this change has occurred during a period of rising economic inequality: among families with school-age children, income inequality between the rich and poor grew by roughly 10 percent from 1998 to 2010. Segregation based on income also grew by 20 percent among households with children.

Cultural messages reach low-income parents

We can speculate as to what is happening. Cultural and media messages about, for example, reading, singing and speaking with children – which reached wealthier parents first – have likely diffused to a broader range of families. So those families are now likewise changing the ways they parent. This success may reflect public information campaigns like “Reach Out and Read” and the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative.

A similar pattern has been observed in public health campaigns: connections between diet, smoking, exercise, and heart disease were first acted on by the well-off, leading at first to widening of gaps in health outcomes. Over time, however, the message spread, and lower-income families started to reap health gains as well.

We shouldn’t be surprised that parenting is malleable. For example, the practice of fatherhood was long believed to be fairly fixed. Yet it has been transformed in the last half century, to the great benefit of children who have grown up with fathers. Just as fathers’ flexibility was underestimated, low-income families’ capacity to adapt their parenting styles may be underrated.

It’s not yet clear whether the US shift in parenting style among low-income families will also be found elsewhere. Research has shown that the initial ratcheting up of intensive parenting on the part of high-income families was most acute in the US and UK – leaving particularly wide gaps and more room for lower-income families to catch up.

Next steps

Researchers, practitioners and policy makers now face a challenge: to understand why low-income parenting behavior has changed so dramatically. Perhaps the transformation can be speeded up. Just as we constantly review the efficacy and quality of preschool education, we should keep researching effective ways to support changes in parenting that can so influence children’s learning.

Policy implications

Governments have an important role to play in supporting parents – by providing effective parenting programs as well as adequate income supports and high-quality preschool education.

Practical implications

Practitioners who see families with young children should make sure to communicate the importance of parents talking to their children and reading with children.

Jane Waldfogel is the Compton Foundation Centennial Professor at Columbia University School of Social Work, USA, and a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. Republished from Child and Family Blog under a Creative Commons licence (CC By-SA 4.0)

Original research and references

1. Bassok D, Finch JE, Lee R, Reardon SF & Waldfogel J Socioeconomic Gaps in Early Childhood Experiences: 1998 to 2010 AERA Open 2.3, 2016

2. Magnuson K & Waldfogel J Trends in Income-Related Gaps in Enrollment in Early Childhood Education: 1968 to 2013 AERA Open 2.2, 2016